Is everyone on looking for a match?

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In a word, no.

The problem is, I see a lot of couples in which one partner is caught using Match, or Tinder, or Ashley Madison, or some other dating/hookup website. Partner B flips out, accusing partner A of cheating, or wanting to cheat. Partner A denies it, but doesn’t sound convincing: “Uh, I was um, you know, just looking around.”

Sometimes that’s nonsense—A is cheating, just as B suspects.

But frequently, A is window shopping. We all do it—we look at ads for things we can’t afford, look in shops at things we’ll never buy, look on EBay at things we don’t need. Cashmere toilet paper. Front-row seats at Scarlet Johansson’s delivery. A ticket on a rocket to the moon (if you’re asking, you can’t afford it).

Some couples window shop together, which can be fun: “Wow, imagine being married to that sloppy guy!” “Wow, do you suppose that sexy dish can cook, too?”

But sometimes window shopping takes a more serious turn, as when people start to wonder: at my age, could I attract someone now? If someone desired me, what would they say? What might someone find attractive about me? What about someone of a different race, or someone much younger?

In the old days, there was mostly one way to pursue such thoughts: in person, and very carefully. At church, at the train station, at the market. Light flirting—very light, if you didn’t want to get in trouble or get taken too seriously.

Now, of course, the internet has created endless options for window shopping, through dating sites. Dating sites: where no one knows you’re a dog, and where half the gorgeous young women are wrinkled old men. And where, nevertheless, a huge percentage of the nation’s dating goes on.

Many people are more or less satisfied in their relationships—certainly not even thinking about leaving—but they’re restless. They wonder about the life not lived. They wonder about their market value. They feel loved, but they don’t feel desired—and for better or worse, there’s something special about being desired by someone who doesn’t know you and love you.

If a couple is together long enough, one or both will have feelings like this. Most couples don’t discuss it—it’s too scary, too unpredictable, and besides, after a few wary sentences and a couple of sighs, what’s to be done about it anyway? Most couples are not going to experiment with non-monogamy, or incorporating their fantasies into their sex, or even add a toy, game, or costume.

So for most couples, the “I know you love me but I wonder if others think I’m sexy” or “Haven’t you ever wondered what sex with a young stranger would be like?” conversations don’t happen. Most people don’t really want to do these things—but they wonder. Wondering is part of adult life, especially mid-life, when options begin to close. When the consequences of choices that were gladly made become clearer and clearer.

Enter the internet: private, cheap, with more possibilities than a mid-life crisis can shake a stick at. Sites on which we can flirt, pretend to be dominant or submissive, and where we can live an alternate life for a minute or two. For a day or two. For a month or two.

It’s seductive—a Coney Island of rides, each inviting our attention. And if we do choose a site, and succeed in attracting someone, the magnetism is tremendous. Ironically, IT people say the best of these sites are “sticky,” meaning they’re hard to leave. And yes, the reinforcement of being attractive to someone in an alternative universe is very, very sticky.

Which brings to mind another thing people do on dating and hookup sites—jack off. Every photo, every little bio represents someone (supposedly) saying “I’m interested in sex—what about you?” Perfect masturbation material. Sticky.

So if you catch your mate on one of the internet’s 20 jillion hot websites, how do you know what it means?

Ask. If your partner says it’s nothing, ask what it’s all about–not as an accusation, but as an exploration, as a way of getting closer. Your mate probably may have a few things to say about him/herself or about your couple. So ask. Gently. Assume your partner’s being truthful, and say so (if your partner isn’t, you’ll find out soon enough). Don’t waste this opportunity to build intimacy.

And don’t assume that a mate that’s on Match is looking for a match. Maybe he or she is just looking for him- or herself.

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